Powder Her Face

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Powder Her Face
Chamber opera by Thomas Adès
Powder her face.JPG
Scene in a production by Pier Luigi Pizzi at the Teatro Comunale Bologna, 2010
LibrettistPhilip Hensher
Based onlife of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll
1 July 1995 (1995-07-01)

Powder Her Face, Op. 14 (1995), is a chamber opera in two acts by the British composer Thomas Adès, with an English libretto by Philip Hensher. The opera is 2 hours 20 minutes long. It was commissioned by the Almeida Opera, a part of London's Almeida Theatre, for performances at the Cheltenham Music Festival.

The subject of the opera is the "Dirty Duchess", Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, whose sexual exploits were the stuff of scandal and gossip in Britain in 1963 during her divorce proceedings. The opera is explicit in its language and detail.

It was first performed on 1 July 1995 in Cheltenham, with Jill Gómez in the leading role. Reviews were generally good, but the opera became notorious for its musical depiction of fellatio: British radio station Classic FM considered it unsuitable for transmission.


The music of the sexually themed opera combines influences ranging from Alban Berg, Igor Stravinsky, and Benjamin Britten to Kurt Weill and the tangos of Ástor Piazzolla. Describing the overall impact of the libretto and the theatricality of the entire production, Alex Ross notes:

Hensher seized the opportunity to create the first onstage blow job in opera history, but he also twisted the story into something more generalised and expressionistic: Margaret becomes a half-comic, half-tragic figure, a nitwit outlaw. There were clear parallels with Alban Berg’s epic of degradation, Lulu [...] The libretto reads like a nasty farce, but it takes on emotional breadth when the music is added. With a few incredibly seductive stretches of thirties-era popular melody, Adès shows the giddy world that the Duchess lost, and when her bright harmony lurches down to a terrifying B-flat minor he exposes the male cruelty that quickened her fall. Adès's harmonic tricks have a powerful theatrical impact: there’s a repeated sense of a beautiful mirage shattering into cold, alienated fragments.[1]

Performance history[edit]

The real-life Duchess of Argyll

After the premiere, there were five London performances at the Almeida Theatre.[citation needed]

On 8 June 2006, there was a concert performance at the Barbican Centre, London, with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the composer.[citation needed]

From 11 to 22 June 2008, it was performed at the Linbury Studio Theatre in the Royal Opera House, London, with the Southbank Sinfonia conducted by Timothy Redmond, and Joan Rodgers as the Duchess.[citation needed]

The U.S. premiere was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on 10 December 1998. The Brooklyn Philharmonic was conducted by Robert Spano with Marie O'Brien as the Duchess, Heather Buck in several parts, and Allen Schrott. Boston first heard the opera, as produced by Opera Boston, on 6 June 2003. The Boston Modern Opera Project was conducted by Gil Rose with Janna Baty as the Duchess; Ms. Buck and Mr. Schrott reassumed their roles.[citation needed]

The New York City Opera performed the opera in February 2013 at the BAM in a production by Jay Scheib and starring the soprano Allison Cook as the Duchess of Argyll.[2] The Opera Company of Philadelphia performed the opera in June 2013, with Patricia Schuman in the lead role.[3]

The German premiere took place at the Hebbel-Theater [de] on 17 April 2001 as part of a coproduction led by the Berlin Chamber Opera [de], together with the Music Theatre Group Amsterdam. The orchestra was the Athelas Sinfonietta Copenhagen under the musical direction of Brynmor Jones with Sally Silver, Eileen Hulse, Richard Edgar-Wilson, and Martin Nelson.[citation needed] The Danish premiere took place later that year (2001) at Den Anden Opera with the same cast and orchestra also conducted by Brynmor Jones.[citation needed]

Roles and premiere cast[edit]

Role Voice type 1 July 1995
(Conductor: Brad Cohen)
Duchess dramatic soprano Jill Gomez
Hotel Manager, also Duke, Laundryman, Other guest bass Roger Bryson
Electrician, also Lounge Lizard, Waiter, Priest, Rubbernecker, Delivery Boy tenor Niall Morris
Maid, also Confidante, Waitress, Mistress, Rubbernecker, Society Journalist high soprano Valdine Anderson


  • Scene 1 – 1990 (The hotel). An electrician and a maid are discovered by the Duchess in her suite, ridiculing her. The scene closes with the entrance of a male figure.
  • Scene 2 – 1934 (A country House). The Duchess's confidante and a lounge lizard discuss her recent divorce. The Duke makes an impressive entrance.
  • Scene 3 – 1936. The Duke and Duchess's wedding is described in a fancy aria by a waitress.
  • Scene 4 – 1953. The Duchess stays at the hotel and seduces a waiter. The waiter accepts a tip and reveals the recurrence of the Duchess's deeds.
  • Scene 5 – 1953. The Duke visits his mistress. They flirt and she suggests that the Duchess's serial seductions are the talk of London.
  • Scene 6 – 1955. Two rubberneckers comment extravagantly on the divorce case. The judge denigrates the Duchess's morals.
  • Scene 7 – 1970. The Duchess is interviewed by a society journalist. Her bill is delivered.
  • Scene 8 – 1990. The hotel manager tells the Duchess to leave the hotel, since she is unable to pay her bills. She attempts to seduce him but with no success. She departs.
  • Epilogue. The electrician and the maid surface from beneath the bed and destroy the hotel room.


The opera is scored for an orchestra of 15 players, with much doubling, and a large range of percussion instruments.[4]

  1. Clarinet 1 in B, doubling bass clarinet, soprano saxophone, and bass saxophone
  2. Clarinet 2 in A, doubling bass clarinet, alto saxophone, and bass saxophone
  3. Clarinet 3 in A, doubling bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, and swanee whistle
  4. Horn in F
  5. Trumpet in C
  6. Tenor trombone
  7. Percussion: two tubular bells, snare drum, flat bass drum, pedal bass drum, small bongo, timbales, rototom, clash cymbals, two suspended cymbals, sizzle cymbal, hi-hat, three temple blocks, three brake drums, tambourine, triangle, tam-tam, vibraslap, washboard, cabaça, large fishing reel, whip, lion's roar, popgun, scrap metal, electric bell
  8. Harp, doubling electric bell and fishing reel
  9. Button accordion, doubling electric bell and fishing reel
  10. Piano, doubling fishing reel
  11. Violin I
  12. Violin II
  13. Viola
  14. Cello
  15. Double bass, doubling fishing reel

Film version[edit]

Powder Her Face was made into a motion picture by Britain's Channel 4 and shown on Christmas Day 1999. The film was released on DVD in the UK for Christmas 2005; the DVD includes a documentary film about Adès by Gerald Fox made at around the same time.


  • Audio CD: Conducted by the composer with the Almeida Ensemble and performed by Jill Gómez, Valdine Anderson, Niall Morris, and Roger Bryson. Recorded 1998, released 1 October 1999. (EMI: CDS5566492)
  • DVD: Directed by David Alden, conducted by the composer with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and performed by Mary Plazas, Heather Buck, Daniel Norman, and Graeme Broadbent. Released in 2006 in the US (DC10002).


  1. ^ "Roll Over Beethoven: Thomas Adès" by Alex Ross, The New Yorker, October 26, 1998
  2. ^ Paddy Johnson, "Powder Her Face: An Opera without Empathy or Soul", Artfcity, 22 February 2013
  3. ^ Marakay Rogers, "Powder Her Face Stuns at Opera Philadelphia", 12 June 2013, broadwayworld.com
  4. ^ Adès, Thomas. Powder Her Face. Score. (London: Faber Music, 1995), p.5
  • Adès, Thomas, Powder Her Face. Score. London: Faber Music, 1995.
  • Inverne, James, "A Most Auspicious Star", New York: Opera News, May 2005

External links[edit]